The Other Side of the Divide
Santos is only eight years old, but he has already heard that crossing the American border without papers will get you locked up. They’ll treat you badly in detention, he says, but at least you get food. And he has a message for Trump: “I want to tell him not to kick us out,” says Santos, who grew up in Guatemala, “because I’m not going to do any bad things.”
Santos is one of the four children from Mexico and Central America interviewed in Jordi Ruiz Cirera’s new Topic documentary series Looking Across the Border. Ruiz Cirera, a Spanish filmmaker and photographer based in Mexico City, met the kids in the migrant camps of Tijuana, Mexico, in early December, as they were waiting with their families—among thousands of others—to cross the border into the United States. At the time, Tijuana was reeling from the influx of over 5,000 migrants from Central America and other parts of Mexico, many of whom had fled gang violence and poverty. (The numbers have since dwindled, but could increase again soon; many more migrants are making their way north from Honduras as we speak.) Not everyone was lucky enough to find decent housing; thousands were forced into makeshift tent camps with dismal sanitary conditions, while they waited for their appointments with US immigration officials and dreamt of a better future.
Ruiz Cirera, whose photographs are also featured here, has worked to document the long-term impacts of migration along the border and in the violence-plagued communities people have been fleeing for the past year and a half. He says he wanted to focus on children to foreground the voices we rarely hear in conversations around migration, but whose lives are profoundly affected by their parents’ decisions to flee. By the end of 2018, an estimated 15,000 were in immigration detention without their parents. It’s been reported that hundreds of children affected by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family-separation policy, which was formally ended in June 2018, still have not been reunited with their parents—and that thousands more have been separated than immigration officials had initially claimed.
On January 24, it was reported that the Trump administration would be implementing a new policy that would force some asylum-seekers to stay in camps like the one Ruiz Cirera captured while they wait for their court decisions. Topic spoke to Ruiz Cirera about his experience shooting Looking Across the Border, the ethics of interviewing children, and how he uses photo and video reporting to find a slower, deeper angle than the quick stories told in the daily news.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Much of your work is about migration. Where does this focus of yours come from?
I’ve always been interested in migration. I’m currently working on a long-term project about the border, both as a line of separation and as a place where many things meet. Where exchange happens. So it’s about the influence of the US in this part of Mexico, on the economy and the politics, and the daily life of the people who live there or move through it.
I’m originally from Spain and when the European refugee crisis was growing I really wanted to cover it, but I lived in London at that point and was so far away from the Mediterranean. I have done a lot of work in Latin America, and for the past year and a half I have been based in Mexico City, which means I have a better chance to stay informed and get to know the daily realities in this region. I hope that enables me to tell these stories in the right way.
There are so many aspects to migration that don’t get told in the fast-paced news cycle, so I’m interested in offering a deeper story. For example, there is the rise of the maquilas [duty-free, low-wage factories on the US–Mexico border] that have been there for decades; that’s not news, but I’m curious what the social realities of these neighborhoods that were made only for these workers are like now?
Where did the idea of interviewing these kids come from?
There is of course a lot of media focus on Tijuana right now, but this project with Topic has a different angle: we never really see what kids and teenagers are thinking on this journey that’s almost always the decision of the parents. Were they looking forward to it, or were they apprehensive?
Migrant children in particular have taken such a big role in the political debate inside the United States. Yet, as you say, it’s rare they get to speak for themselves. How did you find your subjects?
We decided to focus on kids between the ages of 8 and 16 since they would be chattier. I worked with a fixer from Tijuana named Gabriela, who spent some time going into the migrant shelters and areas where recently arrived migrants were living. It was a bit of a challenge to find kids—and their parents, of course—who were willing to speak on camera, and who spoke well. We had also decided to talk to kids who had been there for a while, who were more settled, even in this temporary situation. So we did not talk to the families who had just arrived with the caravan in November 2018, since they were in a very, very stressful situation.
What are the ethical considerations when you interview kids who are this young and in such a vulnerable place? That was definitely something important to consider. The first interview we did was with a 12-year-old from El Salvador who was very upbeat and chatty, but as soon as I asked him about why he’d left his home, he started crying. They’d had to leave from one day to the next after his dad got threatened by a gang. While he was looking forward to going to the US, he had blocked out those painful memories from the past. Of course, that was not an interview we could finish.
I have spent a lot of time working on the border and I knew it was to be expected that these kids would have had very difficult journeys, but it still shocked me. It was quite intense to hear it firsthand. For example, Santos, the youngest child we interviewed—the fact that such a young child knows so much of what happens at the border, and presents it so matter-of-factly, was quite heartbreaking. Still, my experience was that they really wanted to tell their stories. With 16-year-old Cristhian, who had been shot by gang members, I could tell he had something he wanted to say when we met him at the shelter. It took about 40 minutes before he sort of unlocked and told us his story, which is another example of how much deeper you can get if you get to spend more time with the people you are talking to.
We know that many people are still stuck at the border, waiting to cross. Some have even returned to Central America, or decided to settle in Mexico. Do you know how these kids are doing now?
I’ve been in touch with all of them since the shoot. I know that three of them made it to the United States, and at least one of them is about to start school there. It made me very happy to hear that.
Watch Jordi Ruiz Cirera’s Topic series Looking Across the Border now.